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E. Coli Beef Recall Sparked By Rare Bug, CDC Says

Nearly 2 million pounds of ground beef used for Angus Steak burgers and meat patties served in restuarants have been linked to nearly a dozen illnesses caused by a rare strain of potentially dangerous E. coli O157. PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP - Getty Images file

A big recall of nearly 2 million pounds of ground beef potentially tainted with dangerous E. coli bacteria has expanded again, even as federal health officials confirmed Thursday that they’re dealing with a pretty rare bug.

Retail meat distributors in at least a dozen states — including, now, North Dakota, Georgia and Virginia — dished out hamburger produced by Wolverine Packing Co. of Detroit, Michigan, the U.S. Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service said in a notice updated multiple times Thursday evening.

On Monday, Wolverine officials announced a voluntary recall of about 1.8 million pounds of Angus Steak burgers and ground beef patties produced between March 31 and April 18 after they were linked to at least 11 E. coli O157:H7 illnesses in people in four states.

The illnesses, which occurred between April 22 and May 2, were detected after an unusual spike in a rare type of E. coli O157 genetic fingerprints found by PulseNet, the system used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to track human illnesses.

“When we see 11 E. coli illnesses with this genetic fingerprint in a span of two weeks when we normally see only one or two a month, that tells us something is going on,” said Matt Wise, the CDC’s outbreak response team leader.

By contrast, the most common primary fingerprint for E. coli was seen about 300 times in 2013, and the most common two-fingerprint combination was seen more than 150 times, CDC officials said.

Acting quickly in cooperation with the states where illnesses have been confirmed — Michigan, Ohio, Missouri and Massachusetts — officials with the CDC and FSIS were able to trace those rare infections to people who reported eating burgers or other ground beef in restaurants, and then back to the Wolverine source, Wise said.

Wolverine officials have said in statements that none of their product actually tested positive for any E. coli strain, but they issued the voluntary recall as a precautionary move.

So far, the list includes individual supermarkets, grocery stores and delis in a few states and only one multi-state distributor, Gordon Food Service Marketplace, based in Michigan. That firm sent the meat to stores in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Wisconsin, FSIS said.

Gordon officials said in a statement Thursday that they stock one of the products involved in the recall: Fresh Premium Angus Beef Steakburger Patty, 10-count, in a 4-pound package.

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"Upon learning of the recall, GFS Marketplace implemented standard recall procedures, which includes urgent notification to the stores with instructions to dispose of all recalled product and to display a recall notice," firm officials said. "Gordon Food Service also posted the recall notice it received from Wolverine Packaging Co."

For a full list of outlets that sold or distributed potentially tainted meat, click here. FSIS officials, who are adding states and outlets piecemeal as they find them, indicated that not all stores listed may have received potentially tainted products and other stores that aren't listed may have gotten the meat. No representative was available late Thursday to elaborate on the situation.

FSIS officials are continuing to investigate whether more states received the potentially tainted meat, and CDC officials are continuing to scan PulseNet for any additional illnesses. It can take up to three weeks for a person who gets sick to have their case logged in the CDC’s system, Wise said.

It’s not clear which restaurants — or what type of restaurants — served the potentially contaminated meat because FSIS rules don’t regard restaurants as retail outlets subject to identification.

E. coli O157 can cause severe food poisoning, including a potentially deadly complication known as hemolytic uremic syndrome, or HUS, which causes kidney failure. So far, six of 10 victims of this outbreak have been hospitalized, but none has developed HUS.

The illnesses are a good reminder for consumers to cook ground beef thoroughly and eat only well-done burgers served at restaurants, CDC officials said.